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“Information Age Being Buffaloed by the Ice Age: A PhD Research Project on Fossil and Modern Bison in the Black Hills” by: Jeff Martin

Published on October 12, 2015 under Current Research
“Information Age Being Buffaloed by the Ice Age: A PhD Research Project on Fossil and Modern Bison in the Black Hills” by: Jeff Martin


Hello readers,

My name is Jeff Martin and I am a paleontologist, paleoecologist, and PhD student at the University of Maine. I study bison, specifically, their physiological and evolutionary adaptation to abrupt climate change using the fossil record of the last 40,000 years. In May 2015, I received an award from the Larry Agenbroad D. Legacy Fund. This award enabled me to conduct research related to my dissertation. Without these funds, it would not have been possible for my team to travel from Maine to the Black Hills and back to Maine. I traveled with my advisor, Dr. Jacquelyn Gill, and an undergraduate student, Chason Frost. This was a life changing experience for Chason because it was the first time he was west of New York. For me, this was a great experience that builds upon my academic and personal knowledge about bison and the Black Hills. I did most of my undergraduate schooling at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City. Additionally, this trip and project is the keystone of my doctoral dissertation research, and was productive and went without a hitch.


We arrived in the Black Hills in June and set up camp at Wind Cave National Park. There we met up with the remainder of the ex-CAVE-ation group including researchers from East Tennessee State University, University of Florida, National Park Service, The Mammoth Site, and the Royal Alberta Museum. This great team was assembled to explore and excavate Persistence Cave.

During this summer’s digs, we retrieved over 500 fossil specimens including pikas, bats, weasels, marmots, mice, rabbits, frogs, salamanders, snakes, horses, camels, peccaries, foxes, and over 25 bison remains. These bison remains are primarily toe bones. Toe bones (phalanges), in bison, are heavily influenced by the weight of the animal. Morphology (shape) of phalanges indicate body mass, which is what I am studying. Preliminary results from many other fossil bison localities and remains indicate a strong linkage between body mass and temperature. The linkage illustrates an indirect relationship so that as temperature rises, bison body size shrinks.


What Persistence Cave provides for my research is a location where fossil bison (in the cave) and modern bison (Wind Cave bison herd) spatially overlap, which eliminates geographic variation as a possible driver, but are separated by thousands of years. Furthermore, when comparing the body sizes of these two populations and their known environments, I then begin to understand the impact climate change has on bison body size change. From this, I am on working with bison ranchers and associations to redesign management and conservation strategies to adapt to climate change impacts on the bison industry. My goal is to inform present issues and situations with information and scenarios observed from the natural experiment of the past.

Furthermore, we are in the midst of processing sediment samples for fossil pollen. The pollen preserved in the cave sediment is important for understanding past ecological plant communities as they change through time. It’s within these communities, at various points in time, that certain plant species’ presence can indicate climatic conditions. Once we reconstruct the past climate, we can then analyze bison remains from the same time and associate the temperature and precipitation with bison body size and mass.

During our time in the beautiful Black Hills, we had some rainy days. On those rainy days, we spent some time at The Mammoth Site connected to the internet where we tweeted on Twitter (#CaveBison), posted to Facebook, and wrote on my blog (http://bisonjeff.weebly.com/bisonlarge-blog) about our adventure. Overall, we reached 250,000 people and had over 1.4 million timeline deliveries! Perhaps you were following us as well, if so, Thank You!

Social media and news media coverage was well represented on this project and has helped strengthen the visibility of what we are doing. The Mammoth Site is expanding its scientific scope to include regional Ice Age localities, which includes Persistence Cave. Radiocarbon dates have yet to be established on the deposit, but it is believed that this deposit represents a faunal assemblage that will be contemporaneous with The Mammoth Site deposit. These sites together help illustrate a more complete picture of what the Black Hills looked like during the last Ice Age. Visibility throughout the scientific process of this project is one goal of mine and is rebroadcasted by The Mammoth Site.

We plan to continue to tweet occasionally while working in the lab on some of the specimens through this winter, so be on the lookout for #CaveBison. We plan on coming back next year to excavate more! Keep ruminating about bison!

Tweeting at MS